Photographic Archaeology

A character in “A Forgotten Poet”, a story by Vladimir Nabokov, writes,

“If metal is immortal then somewhere

there lies the burnished button I lost

upon my seventh birthday in a garden.

Find me that button and my soul will know

that every soul is saved and stored and treasured.”

The same could be said for photographs. We take them and put them away somewhere, in a drawer, in a shoebox, on our computers, or in the Cloud. All too often, we proceed to forget about them.

Every once in a while, we happen to come upon these treasures from the past. When we do, our gaze falls upon them and memory is reawakened. Emotions bubble up and time shifts somehow. Going through old photographs is like participating in an archeological dig. We sift through layers of the past, trying to make connections between the history being revealed and the present.IMG_1314 V2

It is inevitable that, in this process, questions will arise that cannot be answered. But by asking those questions, we learn something about our selves, and the past lives again. Photographs are not the only artifacts that have the ability to generate these sensations, but they do it in a way that is unique to the medium.

IMG_1313 V2This has a direct bearing on the creative work I am doing now, in which I am sifting through my photographic archives and discovering much in the process. I’m still editing all of this, trying to make sense out of the thousands of images I am looking at. Stay tuned to what emerges!

Thoughts on Influences

I saw a show a few months ago that made me angry. When I realized that I was angry, I stopped to ask myself why. The subject matter of the photographs was landscapes, the pictures were impeccably printed and presented cleanly. Straight photography at its best. At first glance, it seemed absurd that I would get angry about work like this. But then it dawned on me that this particular work belonged to a long and powerful photographic tradition of Modernism  that still resonates today.

When I first became involved with photography in the 1980’s, this approach to the medium was everywhere. It was the kind of photography that got the most accolades and attention from the mainstream media and the public. It was what was (mostly) taught in schools. At the same time, the Postmodern approach to photography was extremely popular in galleries and museums, and that was mostly what art critics were championing.

I didn’t feel at home in either camp. The issues that Postmodernism examined were not the kinds of things that I was interested in. But neither was I comfortable with the kind of approach that had made the Modernists so successful in the early to mid 20th century, particularly as it related to subject matter. I found both approaches, with a few exceptions, to be relatively dry spiritually and emotionally. They held no magic for me, and didn’t speak to me in a way that I could respond to.

Seeing the exhibit of landscape photographs mentioned above generated anger because it made me realize just how powerful an influence the Modernist male photographers in particular had on me at that time. The show represented everything I don’t want to be as an artist. Seeing this work made me realize that I have been constantly fighting off the voices that were most dominant during my photographic coming-of-age. A lot of my creative struggles have sought to inject passion, emotion and narrative into my subject matter, to make photographs that speak to people personally, to make them relatable.

The takeaway? Influences can not only be positive, they can also be negative.

But the fact that they can be negative is not necessarily a bad thing. In my case, it has forced me to define for myself exactly what I want my creative voice to be. I recognize that parts of my process are more Modernist than not, but feel that the content of most of my work departs in large part from that mold.

The Artist vs. The Creative Entrepreneur

I read a great article in this month’s edition of The Atlantic magazine titled “The Death of The Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur”, by William Deresiewicz. In it, he states that “the image of the artist has changed radically over the centuries. What if the latest model to emerge means the end of art as we have known it?”

He starts his discussion by pointing out that artists were initially seen as artisans. That evolved into the artist as genius, then later the artist as professional. The model that is currently emerging in the early 21st century, according to Deresiewicz, is that of the “creative entrepreneur”, someone who acts not only as the creator, but who also markets, bills, advertises, etc., instead of having someone else (ex. an employer) do it for her/him.

Deresiewicsz goes on to suggest how the artwork itself might change as a result of this shift. Having taught a class in fine arts professional practices for many years, and having experienced this shift first hand as an artist, I have to say that I agree with the author’s perceptions about the change that is going on for artists today. It is like being on shifting sands all the time, as the way the game is played seems to change constantly, albeit in sometimes subtle ways that are not immediately comprehended.